Life imitates Bart

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My love affair with "The Simpsons" has lasted for a decade now. As longevity goes, that beats my most successful human relationship by ... let's see ... carry the 2 ... nine years. I make no apologies; I'm a cartoon guy living in a cartoon world.

I'm not alone. Last Sunday's Simpsons Fan Fest at Universal Studios CityWalk brought out an army of aficionados whose ardor easily matched my own, and in a few cases made me look like a complete piker. (Can I get a "D'oh!" brothers and sisters?)

For proof, one needed only to study the hopeless romantics who lined up outside The Groove dance club to have their pictures taken with stand-up portraits of Homer, Marge and the rest of the Springfield clan. The cost was $2 a pop. To the outsider, that might seem a hefty price to pay to hobnob with cardboard cutouts, but it's less than the Bush family charges for photo ops at fund-raising dinners.

And anyway, the Fan Fest was built on an ideal the Bushes can't always be said to share: participatory democracy. WOFL-TV (Fox 35) had chosen to reward faithful viewers of the series by having them vote for their five favorite episodes. Randomly selected ballot-casters would then introduce the winners on the air.

Inside The Groove, TV monitors showed clips from 15 nominated installments, all of which had drawn strong national and local ratings. Like bidders at Sotheby's, participants reviewed the evidence intently before jotting down their choices. Matt Weber, Fox 35's director of promotion, said that about 1,000 forms had been printed up.

I didn't tell him that the snob in me considered only one of the nominees an all-time classic: "Colonel Homer," in which the Simpson patriarch becomes the manager of an up-and-coming country singer. But I wished this vital issue had been addressed on my Census 2000 form.

Time Marges on

A couple of costumed Simpsons characters paraded around the room -- no Homer, no Lisa, just Marge and her hyperactive offspring, Bart. (It was Mother's Day, after all.) Wherever their outfits had been procured, they looked as if they hadn't been repaired or cleaned since the show debuted in 1990. The felt was wearing off Bart's nose and upper lip, and the skin around Marge's ankles was bunched up in rolls, like a throw rug being pressed against a wall by a vacuum cleaner. Both disguises bore wide eyes and teeth-grinding grimaces that made the characters appear oddly narcotized. If you're going to meet your heroes, I guess you should do it before they're rich enough to afford the really good drugs.

Outside on the Plaza Stage, WTKS-FM (Real Radio 104.1) personality Drew Garabo was more spiffily attired in a shiny maroon shirt that was left open to reveal a Homer tee. Garabo led the assembled crowd in contests of knowledge and ability, including a trivia bout that began with the obscure query, "Who was the Plow King?" (answer: Barney Gumble, Springfield's master of part-time snow removal) and only grew more difficult. "Who was Lisa's jazz-playing mentor?" he challenged, causing hands to shoot forward in a show of mass confidence that would have been right at home in a Leni Riefenstahl film.

But walking the walk is sometimes easier than talking the talk, and the sound-alike competition that followed had armchair Rich Littles struggling to approximate the rich sonorities of the show's voice-over cast. A passable Homer impression was performed by a blond fan whose remarks were otherwise limited to the repeated statement, "I am from Iceland." The greatest talent, however, was Garabo's: His Krusty the Clown was so spot-on that I almost ran into Jimmy Buffett's Magaritaville Cafe and warned everyone within earshot to hide the liquor.

Mmmmm ... indigestion

Five more combatants stepped forward for the doughnut-eating tournament, in which plates full of Krispy Kreme treats were to be consumed during an intensive, two-minute chowdown. Lacking Homer's practiced gluttony (and his hand-drawn, endlessly punishable gullet), the best of them managed to demolish a mere six doughnuts, and with the specious benefit of Evian water as a between-course lubricant. Their idol would have demanded cold, frosty beer. At least they got to keep the uneaten delicacies for practice.

When the results of the "favorite episode" tally were announced, I was disappointed, if not entirely shocked, to learn that my pick hadn't even finished in the top five. (And here I thought country music was big in Orlando.) What genuinely mystified me was that so many of the winning voters hadn't stuck around to claim their prizes, and had thus foregone the opportunity to be part of a Simpsons broadcast -- an honor I'd gladly ransom most of my relatives to receive.

"Rachel Smith," Garabo called, to no response. "Jenny Yerkowitz ... Jeff Subbert?" What was wrong with them? If they were really such Simpsons devotees, why hadn't they duly memorized Homer's philosophy that TV is everything?

The slots were eventually filled, but not before I had learned a valuable lesson: You can be in love with anything for 10 years, but it takes commitment to make a relationship work.

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